I can relate to that moment in Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” when Oliver raises his food bowl and shakily asks for more. As a girl growing up in Ireland, I always wanted more at meal times, too.
My mother, a homemaker, typically prepared dinner in the early afternoon, stored the food in the warm oven, and served it when my five siblings and I arrived home from school. Dad ate his dinner alone in the evenings between shifts at the bar where he worked. Afterward, his plate bore brown, weblike marks where the food had dried out in the oven, its crisp edges attaching to the Delftware as though it were glued.
That “more” I craved at mealtimes? It wasn’t food, it was time with family.
I now live in San Francisco with my husband and our two teenage daughters. Years back, as a new mother, I read an article about the many benefits of family meals. It said that shared mealtimes made for a happier, healthier and more connected family, and that deeply resonated with me. As a child, I’d had firsthand experience with the opposite.
I decided that our family would eat together as often as possible. My husband was equally invested in the idea, and we continued the tradition for many years, until several months ago, when our over-scheduled daughters decided something had to give in their day. That something, they insisted, would be family meals.
As a young mother, I’d envisioned fresh, organic and delicious family meals made and consumed every day with love. I’d gleefully anticipated my family’s peals of laughter and animated, rapid-fire exchanges, all punctuated by murmurs of pleasure as we ate mouthwatering dishes. In reality, those early family meals were more a case of my husband and me trying to keep our sense of humor, and sometimes our cool, amid wails from the highchair, overturned bowls of baby food and tiny hands face-painting with pureed green beans or butternut squash.
The battle of wills at the dining table continued as our girls grew, morphing into discord over phone use during meals, their impatience to leave the table and their failure to do their chores. Occasionally, one of my daughters would stalk off, the ensuing silence shattered by the slam of her bedroom door. Not every meal went south, of course. Countless dinners brought the laughter and meaningful connection I craved. Most meals fell somewhere between tension and harmony — gatherings that reflected our various moods and energy levels, and alternatively yielded laughter, tears, distracted or sullen silence, and talk of the mundane and marvelous.
But in recent months the tradition unraveled. Our daughters, complaining largely of exhaustion and a need to “just relax,” began taking their meals in front of the TV, laptops or phones. My husband started disappearing downstairs in the evenings, also to watch TV while eating alone. I retreated to the living room couch to eat dinner from a plate on my lap while reading a book and sipping wine.
Through all those years of family meals, I wasn’t convinced we were gaining any real value from the tradition. It quickly became apparent, however, that breaking with the routine caused a serious disconnect. We took to eating more takeout and freezer foods in place of homemade meals, and to holing ourselves away in separate rooms. One night I realized that I hadn’t looked my husband or my daughters in the eyes that day, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had.
The next morning, tired and frazzled, I tripped on the stairs and came down hard on my left elbow. A shot of pain, and rush of anger, reverberated through me. I cried until it wasn’t about my elbow anymore. When I recovered, I texted my husband and daughters: Family dinner tonight. NO excuses. My husband agreed immediately. It took a round of texts to sway my daughters.
That evening, I set the table with fancy silverware, crystal glasses, and china ringed in gold and Kelly green. I added candles, a dozen pink roses, and white cotton napkins cinched with thick silver rings. My family wondered what we were celebrating. I raised my glass and struggled to keep my voice steady. “Please, sir, I want some more.”
A confused, embarrassed laugh erupted from my daughters. “What?!”
My husband held my gaze and also raised his glass. “To more.”
The girls shrugged and clinked their glasses with ours. “To more,” they said.
We began, and hungrily ate everything.
Ethel Rohan is the author of the new novel “The Weight of Him” and two story collections, “Goodnight Nobody” and “Cut Through the Bone.” She was raised in Ireland and lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter @ethelrohan.
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